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After the future

We paint vivid pictures of the next milestone in our lives, but barely even sketch too far beyond that. What happens after the future?

At the age of 14 I realised that I would be 21 when the new millennium came. At a milestone age at a milestone point in history. Unusually for me, I remember that moment very clearly. Where I was. What I thought. I was excited. What would my adult self be doing? How would the world have changed?

That was my future. I never thought much beyond that. What came after the future?

I only considered that prospect a few years later. When I started to ask myself what sort of career I wanted. I decided I wanted to be self-employed by thirty. I hit that goal at 27, through as much luck as judgement. I scraped the arbitrary earnings target I appended to that goal through some creative mathematics.

I hit that milestone. Then I started to think about the next step.

This is the way we think about tomorrow. In steps, chunks. We paint vivid pictures of the next milestone but rarely even sketch too far beyond that. About what happens after the future.

Thinking to and through

I’m an advocate of thinking more about the immediate future. I strongly believe we are more at risk from artefacts on the near horizon than the far. And there are unmet opportunities in the same blindspot. We don’t think enough about the near future.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t have to think beyond. About our destination as much as our journey. Or at least the next waypoint along it.
Not doing this carries great risks. Public policy is a great and obvious example. Few politicians these days seem to expound a vision of where they want the territory they represent to be in a few decades. But they’re very happy to address the problems of the day, at least verbally.

The issue comes when these two visions conflict. Short term economic growth and long term climate change. Short term employment figures and long term automation trends. Short term state costs and long term social cohesion.

If you have no vision for the long term, the short term always wins.

Narrative and evidence

In the short term, narrative and anecdote carry the most weight. We’re getting better at processing and applying data over short periods, but it carries inherent challenges. Like the example of welfare reforms in Riverside County, which became the inspiration for nationwide welfare reforms in the US under the Clinton administration. As documented in a recent episode of 99% Invisible, (itself pulled from Marketplace’s The Uncertain Hour), the initial analysis of these reforms was very positive. A focus on driving welfare recipients into jobs raised their income significantly and cut the state’s welfare costs.

Everyone’s a winner.

Except they weren’t. Go back a few years later and those on the trial programme — which by this point had already become national policy — were performing significantly worse than those who had been offered education and training rather than being forced into low-skilled, low-paid jobs. Later, during the 2008 recession, those jobs were the first to be lost. Many of those who had escaped welfare had only done so temporarily.

After the future: a vision of the far horizon

The far horizon is always hazy and indistinct. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to sketch it. Like in the example above: an appropriate weight given to long term benefits of growing skill and education levels may have helped to tip the balance against an ultimately regressive policy development.

This might sound overly optimistic. But we seem to be entering an age where rhetoric holds sway over evidence. Narratives about the long-term future — “your childrens’ future” — can be incredibly powerful.

The debate about the immediate future is shrill. In both business and public policy, strong, positive narratives about what happens after the future could be exactly the counter-balance we need.

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Tom Cheesewright